The Hidden Book by Kirsty Manning

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

As with all her books, Kirsty Manning has used historical records and re-imagined a story around them, shifting some events and combining others to suit her narrative.

In the Acknowledgement section, she tells the reader that it took her four years to decide the best way to tell this story so that she could respect and honour the people who took great risks to save evidence from the Mauthausen concentration camp, in Austria, during World War 2. This place became known as the camp of no return. 200,000 people would be deported there and 120,000 would perish. Manning’s novel, The Hidden Book, is about photographic confirmation which would be used to convict Nazi war criminals. This evidence now resides in a Jewish Museum in Sydney.

Although this book of photos is real, Kirsty Manning has used her imagination to produce a story of fiction around the creation and concealment of this material during the war, and how it came to be part of a museum in Australia. For those readers who wish to learn more about this aspect of history, a Resource section has been provided for accurate information on museums and memorial sites.

As would be expected there are two storylines, one in Europe 1945 and the other in Australia in the late 20th Century. The latter is a story of a young girl growing up in Australia and her search into one aspect of her family history. As she gets older she is encouraged by her mother to put down roots, but Hannah didn’t know how to do so without knowledge of her own family history. As a young child she remembers visits from her grandfather, who lived overseas, and a mysterious package he had brought one time for her mother. She was always a curious youngster so soon discovered what was in the package, most of which she did not understand at that age. Since then, her mother had ensured that this package was concealed from her.

As she grew older the relationship between her and her mother was often strained, usually because her mother did not want to look back but to look ahead to the future, while Hannah yearned to know about her family’s past. They were both strong determined women. To try to accomplish her dream Hannah studied history at university and even travelled to Austria and visited the camp which she knew was related to the mysterious package.

It would take many years and a couple of marriages before Hannah was able to accomplish her dream and when she did, she was a much wiser person. She had eventually been able to access her grandfather’s book and finish a PhD about the concentration camp and its connection to her own family history. This work was based on four facts that she believed to be true – A skinny man in a striped uniform, an unlikely meeting with a Spanish photographer, a mother who followed her true love to make a life on the land and a grandfather who carried a clandestine book to Australia (276). She had come to realise that terrible events in history could be acknowledged but also used to invite people to look to the future and think about identity, migration and complex questions of nationalism (161). Things which our twenty-first century philosophies still struggle with.

Within her story Kirsty Manning has created wonderful characters from many races and persuasions. She has included love stories and addressed family relationships. Through Hannah’s journey, the author had addressed trauma and regret and revealed some of the horrors of war. For Hannah’s mother she would hide her thoughts and keep going. But Hannah discovered that it was possible to find a path through trauma – generational trauma and her own. Now, as a mother, she realised how easy it was to infect one’s children with hurt and misery but also understood their resilience.

At first, I was not as readily drawn to this story as others I have read by this author. This was probably because of the inhumanity of the war situation, however, as I became more engrossed in Hannah’s journey, I found that, as usual, Kirsty Manning has provided a very human, interesting story which all readers should be able to relate to, based on some true, though shameful historical events.

The Hidden Book


by Kirsty Manning

Allen & Unwin


$32.99; 318pp


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